Thousands of people participated in the Friday funeral of Haj Mahmoud El Araby, the self-made businessman known for his philanthropic activities. Images of the funeral were widely shared on social media, accompanied by posts from employees at his company, El Araby Group, and by members of the public testifying to how the business mogul had touched, and in many cases changed, their lives.
El Araby was born in 1932 in Abu Raqaba village in Menoufiya to a poor family. He received little education, first memorising the Quran before joining primary school which he left when he reached grade four because his family could no longer afford to keep him in class.
El Araby worked from an early age, at first selling cheap toys to boys in his village. He then moved to Cairo and began working in shops, eventually opening his first business, a stationary shop, with two partners.
When, a few years later, one of the partners opted to leave the business and El Araby’s second partner died, he would send profits from the shop to the latter’s children.
In 1964 he partnered with his brothers and founded El Araby Group. The company began by selling electrical appliances in Al-Moski, and by 1975 had become the authorised distributor of the Japanese Toshiba brand. He subsequently established Toshiba’s largest factory outside Japan and acquired licences to assemble and distribute other Japanese brands. Such was his profile in Japan that in 2009 he was awarded the Medal of the Rising Sun by Japanese Emperor Akihito.
“Mahmoud El Araby is an icon of Egyptian industry. He introduced advanced technology to Egypt and built communities around his plants,” Mahmoud Mohieldin, Egypt’s former investment minister and an executive director of the International Monetary Fund, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The business model he established, growing a small project in the 1960s to one of the largest groups in the Middle East, should inspire all small- and medium-sized enterprises. It needs to be studied and duplicated in Egypt and across the Arab world.”
Mohieldin attributes El Araby’s phenomenal success to his ability to react quickly to market changes and the challenges they posed, and his determination to invest in new opportunities so that not only his group, but the society at large, benefited.
The factories he established were intimately connected to the surrounding communities. “When he established factories in Benha, Qoweisna, Qalioub and Beni Sweif he developed the local neighbourhoods, upgrading the skills of the nearby population and offering them job opportunities at his factories,” said Mohieldin.
Economic consultant Moatasem Rashed describes El Araby as “the embodiment of a patriotic industrialist”. In addition to industrial plants, he built two medical facilities and established a vocational learning institute to prepare young people for the labour market.
Mahmoud Zoheir, who worked with Haj El Araby for 18 years, told the Weekly that when El Araby interviewed applicants for jobs his selection criteria were based on the applicant’s honesty, principals, and how he or she saw the future.
Though a former member of parliament, unlike many businessmen El Araby was not attracted to political life. “I believe I can better serve the community by creating 1,000 new jobs a year, and more if I can,” he said in an interview.
El Araby, says Rashed, “was an ideal business man who was also a loving husband, good father, supportive manager and friend”.
El Araby is survived by six sons and two daughters.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly